Wideout Wednesday - Is MVP Possible For Wide Receivers?

Photo: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

This past week on The Draft Network’s Twitch show “Draft Night, Every Night,” Trevor Sikemma and I discussed the likeliest NFL MVP candidates. The usual suspects were selected, players such as Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. 

Eventually, we mentioned how challenging it is for a non-quarterback to win the award, as its only been done once since 2006 (Adrian Peterson in 2012). The Associated Press considers 1961 to be the official start of the current MVP Award, and these are the numbers for total MVP Award by position:

  • Quarterbacks have a total of 41 MVP Awards
  • Running backs have a total of 16 MVP Awards
  • Linebackers have 1 MVP Award (Lawrence Taylor in 1986) 
  • Defensive tackles have 1 MVP Award (Alan Page in 1971)
  • Believe it or not, Placekickers have 1 MVP Award (Mark Moseley in 1982)

Wide receivers have always faced an uphill climb when it comes to garnering any sort of recognition for the award. In fact, the last time a wide receiver even received a vote was Randy Moss as a rookie in 1998.

Before Moss, Jerry Rice is the closest to have ever won the award, finishing second to John Elway despite posting 22 receiving touchdowns in a strike-shortened 12-game campaign in 1987. Rice, Moss and Sterling Sharpe are the only wide receivers to have received votes in the past 39 years. 

We’ve seen some incredible feats out of wide receivers over the years, such as Calvin Johnson’s two year stretch when he posted 3,645 receiving yards. Still, Calvin went without a single MVP vote.

I started to consider exactly what a wide receiver would have to do in order to be considered for the MVP Award, and the reality is that their production, situation and surroundings would have to be incredibly unique.

In order for a wide receiver to be a candidate for the MVP Award, they likely have to break or approach either Randy Moss’ receiving touchdown record of 23, Calvin Johnson’s receiving yardage record of 1,964, or Marvin Harrison’s receptions record of 143. Considering that none of those performances resulted in a single MVP vote, that would have to just be the start.

Wide receivers are reliant on their quarterback to get them the football, and that results in shared production which could hurt a wide receiver’s chances of winning the award. During that famous strike-shortened 1987 season when Jerry Rice lost the MVP race by 6 votes, his quarterback, Joe Montana, received 18 votes. Their shared production propped up both players' candidacy, and ultimately prevented Rice from winning the award.

Rice had half of the 49ers receiving touchdowns, but just over 25% of their yardage due to the games played with replacement players. For a wide receiver to be considered for the MVP Award without their quarterback siphoning votes away, their market share of team receiving yards will probably need to approach 38% that we saw from Calvin Johnson’s 2012 season.

On top of that, the MVP Award has historically been given to players who come from winning teams, which means that a wide receiver can’t just be producing during garbage time losses.

I’ve come up with estimates of what a wide receiver would have to accomplish in order to win the NFL MVP Award during the modern era of football. Here they are:

  • 130 receptions
  • 1,900 yards (with a market share of 38% or higher)
  • 18 touchdowns (with a market share of 50% or higher)
  • Be on a playoff-bound team

These numbers aren’t completely out of the realm of possibilities, as we’ve seen players such as Antonio Brown produce 136 receptions, 1,834 yards (38% market share) and 10 touchdowns for a team that finished at 10-6 in 2015. Additionally, Brown had a boost in candidacy from seeing his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, miss a few games due to injury and post just a slightly above average season statline. Still, Brown was unable to garner any votes for the award that season, as Cam Newton was in the midst of a historic run that involved 45 total touchdowns and quarterbacking a 15-1 team. 

While it’s not out of the realm of possibilities, it’s difficult to imagine a wide receiver having a season where they garner serious MVP consideration in the near future. Anything is possible in football, but all of these scenarios falling into place over the course of a single NFL season seems too far-fetched, the deck is just stacked too far against the position.